The Evangelical Church Is Confronting Its Original Sin
Nationalism has long been the great clash between Jesus and the religious elite.
Christian Twitter has had quite a week.
In the last four years of a Trump White House, an overwhelming number of evangelical leaders have publicly thrown their support behind the President in the name of religious freedom and the right to life. Still, there have been a few brave ones to rebuke him for his anti-Gospel actions and rhetoric. When they do, they’re usually called socialists or baby killers. Twitter blows up for a day, and then it dies down. This pattern has been peppered throughout the past several years, but now, in the wake of a racial reckoning, a pandemic, and a contentious election riddled with conspiracy theories, it’s becoming more of a consistent battle.
The religious right has become so aligned with Trumpism that even a resistance to Trump that’s accompanied by a resistance to progressivism is still seen by many as a betrayal. For instance, when the giant of the reformed world, John Piper, released a statement saying that he could not in good conscience vote for either Trump or Biden, he was called liberal and a Marxist. (This is the man who says women shouldn’t be police officers because they should not hold positions of authority over men…. Liberal?)
Prominent evangelicals have made it clear that there is no room for middle ground. You cannot be a moderate conservative. You cannot be a never-Trump Republican. You must go all the way. All the way down the spiral toward hell to which this godless administration is leading the Republican party. It must have your allegiance.
The hypocrisy is obvious: “America First” nationalism, racist dog-whistles, and patriarchy are severely incompatible with the tenets of the Christian faith. It’s left many wondering, how could these leaders of the faith be getting this so wrong?
But, really, it’s not all that surprising.
On November 30th, six presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries released a joint denouncement of Critical Race Theory. It stated:
In light of current conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention, we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.
At best, this criticism of CRT is odd because there are plenty of theories that aren’t meant to be stacked against Christianity, and we haven’t seen these leaders criticize other secular philosophies for being incompatible with Christianity.
At worst, it’s an effort to silence criticisms of racism within the Church and the nation (the two being so intertwined by this particular brand of evangelical leaders.) If one can slap the big, bad “CRT” label on a call-out of white supremacy, then those criticisms will never truly be heard or addressed.
It’s playing out already.
Beth Moore, who has been a prominent women’s Bible teacher for decades, tweeted in December:
I’m 63 1/2 years old & I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive and dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.
Moore was met with everything from support to shock to slander.
Strangely, she was accused by some of being blinded by “woke” liberals and Critical Race Theory.
There was nothing about CRT in her tweet. Nothing about any race theory. Nothing about race at all.
The reach to CRT implies that people see a criticism of nationalism as comment about race. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible not to intertwine to two since so much of our nation’s history is steeped in white supremacy, and anything outside of it requires a deconstruction of blind nationalism.
Christian author Hannah Anderson took to Twitter with her thoughts on the intersectionality of Christian nationalism and white nationalism. She wrote, “A Christian nationalist isn’t someone who is simultaneously patriotic & Christian. It’s someone who thinks their patriotism makes them a better Christian.” She went on the next day, saying, “It’s also different from garden variety nationalism b/c it defines the nation in terms of religion, not simply citizenship. You need to be a particular kind of citizen to be a “true” citizen. And that’s where Christian Nationalism can overlap w/ ethnonationalism (in the US, white nationalism). B/c of our history, the American church is still racially divided. Whether we like it or not, we carry implicit assumptions into our definition of who is ‘Christian.’”
The CRT or “woke” label is very similar to the right’s tendency to label anything anti-conservative as Marxist — with no regard to what Marxism actually is. It’s a scary-sounding but meaningless word. But this one is especially stinging because it is specifically related to racial equity. At a time when the nation is confronting our disturbing history of white supremacy and its lingering place within our systems, leaders, and people, the Southern Baptist Convention is more concerned with a theory about race than with white supremacy itself.
Why? Because an attack on race is an attack on nationalism. And historically, nationalism is the Church’s favorite route toward proximity to power.
Here’s where the inevitability of it all comes in to play.
In Luke 4, Jesus is teaching in the synagogues. He’s been healing, casting out demons, and overall wowing the people. They adore him. Then he references the fact that in the ancient days of Israel, the nation rejected the prophets God sent, so the prophets went to the Gentiles. Not only Gentiles, but outcasts. Lepers and widows — people with no social capital. Instantly, the people’s awe turns to fury.
To put it plainly, the religious elite did not want their religion to have anything to do with the Gentiles.
Today’s preachers criticize the religious elite in the New Testament for not understanding the concept of grace and being stuck in a world of merit-based salvation. That is true. But the reason they were so devoted to the law was because their pious obedience to the law was what set them apart as a nation. It was their power. The Pharisees’ grace issue was, in many ways, a race issue.
Jesus’ rejection of nationalism is part of what sent him to the cross. In a political climate that said Caesar is king, Jesus said, my Kingdom is greater than this one.
The tendency for the religiously pious to reach for proximity to power through ethno-nationalism is a tale as old as time. It’s one of the Church’s original sins. It undercurrents both the Old and New Testaments.
But the God of the Bible’s disdain for it runs through the sacred texts, too. This is the God who says:
Care for the widow.
Protect the sojourner.
Defend the oppressed.
Leave behind your wealth and follow me.
It is the God who walked through Samaria (a region that was fiercely avoided because of its mixed-race population — descendants of Jews and Gentiles who intermarried) and sat with a woman who had been married multiple times. He entrusted her with his message. A widowed and/or divorced Samaritan woman had just about the least amount of social and political power one could have had. The Kingdom of God has never been about political capital. That tension has been the religious elite’s clash with Jesus since he first started teaching in synagogues.
It still is today.
Kyle Howard, Christian theologian and trauma counselor added his two cents to the Twitter wars. He wrote:
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” sounds like “REPENT” to the ears of White America. That is why many respond to the former the same way many responded to the prophets.
Howard is getting to the heart of this issue: this has been the Church’s sin for centuries. The Old Testament’s religious crowd ignored the calls of the prophets for a racial equity that stems from a mindset of prioritizing the coming Kingdom of God over the kingdom of the power of man. The New Testament’s Christians struggled to include Gentiles in the story of salvation. Today’s prominent evangelicals are resisting a call to lay aside political power and Christian nationalism. In fact, the Christians making that call are still seen as “fringe.”
The tension of this moment isn’t occurring in a vacuum. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It came after months, years, and centuries of humanity’s resistance to give up power, even when that power comes at the cost of the oppression of others. It’s not new. It’s the Church’s original sin. And we’re confronting it again. Evangelicals have a chance to repent — to put it to bed in this generation, in this moment. The question now: Will they?